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Top White House aide urges staff to tune out ‘noise’ and focus on governing during debate fallout

WASHINGTON (AP) — White House chief of staff Jeff Zients urged people during an all-staff meeting on Wednesday to tune out the “noise” and focus on the task of governing as senior aides scramble to contain the political fallout from President Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance.

Even as Zients acknowledged that the days since the Atlanta matchup between Biden and Republican Donald Trump have been challenging, the chief of staff stressed to White House aides the accomplishments and the track record of the Democratic administration and said governing will only become more crucial once the campaign season heats up, particularly after the Fourth of July holiday, according to a White House official.

Biden himself began making personal outreach on his own, speaking privately with senior Democratic lawmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons and South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, according to a second White House official and others with knowledge of the conversations.

On Capitol Hill, there is increasing anxiety with each day as Biden had been slow to reach out to top Democrats and rank-and-file members, according to people familiar with ongoing conversations. Democrats are unsatisfied with the explanations of Biden’s debate performance from both White House staff and Biden himself. And there is a deeper frustration among some Democrats who feel Biden should have handled this much sooner and has put them in a difficult position by staying in the race.

Zients tried to rally the staff’s confidence in Biden’s reelection apparatus, noting that the president has a “strong campaign team” in place and that the White House’s job was to focus on continuing to implement Biden’s agenda. He also told staff that Biden has always made it through tough times, despite being counted out over his decades in public office.

The chief of staff also encouraged aides to “continue being a team” and, while acknowledging the increasing political chatter, to “tune it out” and stay disciplined, according to the official, who was granted anonymity to relay Zients’ private remarks. Zients also urged White House staff to ask questions and offer feedback.

Staff-wide White House calls aren’t unusual, but Wednesdays’ 15-minute check-in came as Biden and senior White House officials were working to assuage rattled lawmakers, donors and other allies within the party amid sharpening questions about whether the 81-year-old president had the competency to run for a second term in office.

Biden’s reelection campaign planned a staff-wide call of its own and says it will “be using emails and all staff calls more frequently to make sure you all have the latest updates and broader campaign priorities for the day,” according to a memo sent Wednesday by campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon and campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez. The memo insists the election between Biden and Trump will still be close, seeking to downplay the lasting effects of the debate.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were also scheduled to hold one of their sporadic lunches on Wednesday, and the president was planning on hosting an assortment of Democratic governors at the White House in the evening.

Among the Democratic governors who were planning to attend in person were Tim Walz of Minnesota, who leads the Democratic Governors Association, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, Maura Healey of Massachusetts, Daniel McKee of Rhode Island, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Andy Beshear of Kentucky and Gavin Newsom of California, according to their aides. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy were planning on attending virtually.


Associated Press writers Will Weissert, Mary Clare Jalonick and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.

Seung Min Kim (), The Associated Press